Outbreak on through to the Other Side of Baystate’s COVID Walls…
SPRINGFIELD—Speaking at the weekly COVID-19 briefing here, Baystate Health Systems President & CEO Dr. Mark Keroack announced that an outbreak of the novel coronavirus hit a non-COVID ward at the health network’s flagship hospital. Keroack told reporters that 13 patients and 23 staff had been identified as COVID-positive in the outbreak.
The news came amid rising fears that Massachusetts is seeing marginally higher numbers of new case if not concurrently higher positive rates. An outbreak in Chatham had sparked fears about community spread on the Cape. However, an outbreak at a facility that has been critical to the region’s relatively good response will undoubtedly cause unease in Springfield and the wider region.
“Last week, Baystate Health identified COVID-positive employees and COVID-positive patients on a non-COVID clinical unit at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield,” Keroack said.
Speaking from prepared remarks, Keroack explained that the hospital is in the process of contacting patients in the affected unit from July 15 to July 23. The infected staff are now at home with moderate to no symptoms. Of the 13 patients, six have been discharged and seven remain hospitalized. One is in intensive care.
The hospital’s epidemiologist has traced the outbreak to an employee who had traveled to a hotspot state and had not quarantined for 14 days. While a recommendation to that effect has been out for some time, a formal quarantine order for travel to such states does not begin until August 1. Last week Governor Charlie Baker announced that residents and non-residents traveling from 41 such states must quarantine unless they have proof of a COVID-negative test taken less than 72 hours prior to travel.
Keroack also said that further spread traced back to employees meeting in break rooms without masks. He said the hospital was working with boards of health and the state Department of Public Health to execute in contact tracing. He said it is safe to receive treatment at the hospital.
“This event reinforces that COVID is highly contagious,” Keroack said. “We are deeply disappointed this outbreak has occurred. We are committed to an ongoing review of our safety practice to be sure they are aligned with the current guidelines and science.”
While the outbreak is a tremendous embarrassment to Baystate, it may not surprise some. Staff at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield are nonunion, but labor officials representing staff at other hospitals have expressed doubt about COVID-free zones in medical facilities.
Last week, the lawyer for the suspended Superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home had implied some infected veterans contracted the virus at Holyoke Medical Center. Officials there denied this.
Baystate’s response mostly consists of doubling down on hand-washing, masking and distancing. Keroack reiterated that Baystate had suspended business travel. He added that the hospital was developing protocols and spaces for employees to engage in unmasked activities like eating. Most notably, it was effectively implementing Baker’s travel order with respect to staff that travel to hotspot areas.
Dr. Robert Roose, the chief medical officer of Mercy Hospital and Keroack’s usual clinical co-headliner at these briefings, called this news an example of the tenuous state of the battle with COVID-19.
“I very much appreciate the cautionary tale that he just reported,” Roose said.
The Mercy grandee stressed that studies had shown how effective mask-wearing can be, pointing to a Missouri hair salon that saw no spread to customers despite two stylists testing positive. They were wearing masks. He also took the opportunity to note that Mercy and its parent company, Trinity Health, had halted travel, possibly through next June. Meetings among staff even the same building are basically verboten. It’s all virtual all the time if at all possible.
One unclear aspect was when Baystate began notifying officials of the outbreak. Keroack said that staff began suspecting a problem last month, which would be five days after the infection window they identified. He did not say when public health officials were notified.
If they were told before today, they did not include Springfield Health & Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris. She told reporters Monday she learned of the outbreak along with everybody else.
“I was not aware of it. I heard the information as you did,” she said. Caulton-Harris said her department’s role would be to conduct contact tracing for any employees or patients who are Springfield residents.
If this outbreak did not include city residents, it is possible she would not be among those Baystate has involved. However, the outbreak still happened within her jurisdiction.
A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Health & Human Services had not provided comment about its notice and actions as of posting time.
It is not clear whether these employees and patients were all Hampden County residents. The county has experienced occasional bumplets in new cases over the last couple of weeks. In the abstract, these were not alarming. Yet, 36 cases, plus any contacts over the course of a week, could have an impact on the number of cases in the county and across the 413.
As of Monday afternoon, there were 7309 cases in Hampden county and 9445 in Western Mass.
Baystate has 12,000 employees and so testing all of them would be neither necessary nor possible. However, Keroack said that 90 employees work in the affected unit. Another 100 are in and out of it. All received tests. Thus far, only 23 staff have tested positive.
Among patients, the hospital is reaching out to those in that unit during the mid-July window. Other than that, tracking the rest of the spread appears to be focusing on the contacts of the COVID-positive.
Baystate’s news overshadowed almost all else from the briefing Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno holds weekly. Aside from the usual warnings and pleas from the officials to follow public health rules, the only other COVID news from the pressers related to unauthorized gatherings. City officials assured they would shut down such gatherings if they lacked permits and COVID safety plans.